Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review of @KarbonSpeed 88/88 aero wheel combo

Can money buy speed? That’s what you have to weigh when you fork over 4 figures for a newish-used high end aero wheels (and that’s for at least one wheel, and lets not even talk about the prices for brand new wheels). Nowadays there are start-up companies producing aero wheels for the tri and cycling industry for lower prices. What’s for real anymore? Do you want the look, performance or both?

After trying stock race wheels, Zipp 404’s, Zipp 808’s, Zipp 1080’s, Renn 575 discs, Planet X 82/101 sets and more, you tend to get a pretty good feel for legit aero wheels and those trying to get a toehold in the market with lower prices.

When Karbon Speed started making noise about a new kind of bike wheel business changing the selling scheme, offering more for your buck and carbon clincher aero wheels basically ready to ride out of the box, they got on the radar.

After some conversations, Karbon Speed was at the doorstep. An unassuming box with the 88/88 set was ready for the paces. After playing with these wheels in the Kansas City fall weather, jamming in rides after work, on weekends, after changing diapers and during a house move, here’s what you can take home from this EMT review.

One point Karbon Speed wants to drive home is the convenience factor of their wheels and getting them in your hands. Unlike other top tier wheels, they do not have vendor agreements with brick and mortar stores to sell their wheels. You buy them directly from Karbon Speed, saving on markup and the cost of red tape. You buy, they ship from the factory. No, you will not have a chance to “kick the tires” before buying, but they also don’t charge you shipping. Being that they are a small startup, they are also very accessible and generally open to listening to requests and issues you might have after buying their wheels. They want you to be happy and save some money with shipping, but you won’t be able to sample before you buy it.

You can also choose to have your wheels pre-mounted with Continental tires and tubes. Potentially all you do is buy on the computer and within a week you have your set of wheels to drop on your bike and hit the road. No taking your bike to get the tubular glued on or doing it yourself. They offer clinchers only, which if you have gone down the tubular route, that offers a little reassurance you can change your tires on your own in case of a flat. You can also switch out tires for training and racing. That allows you to save your good gear for races. One catch is you will need a rear cassette of you order a rear wheel. Be prepared to have a cassette and know how to install it, or time to stop by the shop to have them pop one on in 10 minutes or less. More than likely, most new aero wheels come without a cassette anyway, so no big difference there. Karbon Speed will also toss in tire levers and skewers included with the wheel price. Ever gone through the pain to steal skewers from other wheel sets or to find a new pair to use that is quality and not costly? No worries there.

When you do break into the box, you can’t help but be impressed with the packaging. It’s a nice presentation and well packed. Also notice on the boxes the John 3:16 reference. It’s a small thing, but a nice touch to connect with like minded individuals as the owners of Karbon Speed as they say, ”we're all Believers [At Karbon Speed] and we do what we can to spread the good word. I personally race for two Christian triathlon teams, FCA Endurance (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and Multisport Ministries.” So, if racing and your beliefs go hand-and-hand, they have that going for them.

All told, it was a 10 minute process to rescue the wheels from the packaging, and another 10 to get the tubes and tires on. You know you hit pay dirt when you don’t damage the carbon clinchers getting tires on! The only issue was stopping at the bike shop for a cassette and the tools to do it. Hopefully there are some with better bike mechanic skills than this reviewer.

From the pictures, you can see there were no issues with mounting onto a 2012 Specialized Transition Comp Tri bike. The wheels are skinnier than Zipp 808’s and slide ride in with no interference. It was just as natural as any other wheel set. The only nervous moments were hoping the air holds with the valve extenders included with the wheels. From days spent on the IM KS 70.3 road dealing with valve extenders, if it’s not screw in tufo valve extenders, it’s not 100%. The valves were open, the extenders were installed, and after two weeks of intermittent testing and a few weeks of sitting around the basement, the wheels held air with no problem. But, if you want that piece of mind, pop to get the tufo extenders.

Freewheeling is a big difference in wheels. The hub can make or break a ride. Zipp has the hub market cornered and probably the best hub freewheel out there. Well, you did pay for it. Karbon Speed sports Novatech hubs. In addition to looking sharp, freewheel just as well as anything out there. You can’t just slap substandard hubs on a V-rim shape and call it good. The wheel shape and material can be the best on the market, but if you’re experienced increased friction from the hubs when freewheeling, you’re better off with the stock wheels.

Hubs and shape. Those are the big two differences right of the bat any triathlete will look for in aero wheels. Some wheels go deep, but don’t take advantage of V-shapes. Some use V-shapes, but don’t account for crosswind performance issues. Karbon Speed uses a modified V-shape that captures the best front on aerodynamic characteristics while assuring a manageable ride in a cross wind. During test riding in Kansas, you will ride in wind. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. That’s the rub with the deeper wheels. You’re taking your life in your own hands on deep wheels in a crosswind. Honestly, the Karbon Speed wheels did not grab as much as other wheel sets in the same conditions. The 88’s are the deepest they have, and with a stiff 20 mph crosswind, a confident triathlete can control the rig and stay down in the bars with ease. Just pay attention and no day dreaming or you’re going to be in the ditch regardless of the wheels.

You don’t have to think about breaking. Just pull back and they work. That’s the best when you brake and they work as you expected, you don’t even think about it. If you notice your braking is either too grabby or too lose, you have problems.

When you think about carbon aero wheels, you might also have visions of deflection. Carbon fiber while very strong, tend to flex easily for a slight distance and then tighten up in a more progressive manner. Aggressive climbers and sprinters like this feel. So, instead of your constant rate of flexure from steel or aluminum rims no matter the force you place on them, you get more reaction for more effort you put on carbon. This might not be the ride everyone wants, but once you go with deep aero wheels, you have no choice.

It’s all well and good to go over the talking points and go out and ride the wheels around the block, but short of having a wind tunnel, time trailing the 88’s and other wheel sets is the only way to really get a feel for what they are capable of. So that’s what happened. Karbon Speed was set up against different wheel over a 6 mile loop to see what they can really do. Like any good controlled science experiment, everything was controlled. The weather was exactly the same each day, the nutrition was the same, rest was the same… or not. Maybe in a perfect world, but to account for variances in wind and conditions, the wheels were ridden at different times in different orders. To hopefully randomize some of the conditions, 10 rides over the same loop was performed on 5 different wheel setups over a two week period. To control some of the inputs, RPM’s were kept at 95 rpms +/- 3 rpms. Heart rate average was around 135 and the distance was the same 6 mile loop +/- 0.05 of a mile.

Did you just read that last paragraph and think, “blah blah, just get on with how Karbon Speed compares to other wheels!”? To you, I say, here are the results.

Keep in mind, from the table everyone can see that each wheel set did not get an equal numbers of rides. There may be some follow up in the future, but right now the weather has turned chilly in the Midwest and outdoor riding has taken a back seat. Check back in the spring for more testing of non-Karbon Speed setups.

As you can see, Karbon Speed came in next to last in the average speed category. There can be many factors attributing to a lower value, such as not enough test rides for other sets, conditions, etc. Take it all in stride, but also realize that they were only 0.6 mph off from the best set and almost 0.5 mph better than the worst. Extrapolated over 112 miles, Karbon speed would save 10 minutes from the worst speed and require 12 minutes from the best speed (even though getting the best speed from a 404/Renn 575 wheel set is a little suspect).

Hunting and pecking on the web, you can probably get a new (maybe a 1 year old model, but never ridden) Zipp 808 / 1080 set for $2500. Tack on some shipping and insurance, because you probably won’t find those prices in your LBS. Looking for a Zipp 808 set? Google can get you $2000 for a 2012 set that’s on sale. That’s pretty comparable to the Karbon Speed 88/88 set at $2200 (they had to recently increase the price from $1500 due to the economics and moving forward- blog release HERE ( with free shipping. Karbon Speed thinks highly of their product and they have placed themselves with the elite. But also consider Zipp and many other brands don’t come with the extras such as tire levers, skewers, pre-teflon taped, valve extenders, wheels bags and brake pads. Generally when you get to the deeper wheels, tubular is the less expensive and more available choice, and if you have ever had your tires glued on by your LBS, you know that cost can easily exceed $150 for glue and labor. All these points are brought to demonstrate that while Karbon Speed is not a significant price savings over other top competitors, they do provide more frills for your dollar while still maintaining a competitive ranking for raw speed.

But, they do like to reward loyalty and are always trying to attract new customers. If you’ve read this far, then there are some additional ways to save when buying Karbon Speed wheels. For starters, they want you to ditch your old aero wheels for theirs and they are willing to help you upgrade with their UNZIPPED ( program. In addition, for this review specifically, they have created a short term code to use at checkout to get $1000 off. Yes, $1000 for braving this review to read it to the end! Just use code “MVT”

(The $1000 off was valid until December of 2012.  Use code MVT any time after for 10% off).

As you go through your triathlon experience and graduate to aero wheels, Karbon Speed is a legitimate option. More than just looking the park, they have the science and design to back up their product. Their management competes and is extremely passionate about the sport of triathlon. They look for that extra edge when selling their wheels to do what they can to pass along any price savings to the consumer. This archaic little time trail test is only a snippet of a quasi-scientific experiment that could prove whether or not you can get more or less speed from Karbon Speed wheels. Do yourself a favor and check them out when you are in the market for aero wheels.

*Writer’s note, Karbon Speed sent wheels to test and the wheels were then returned after testing. Karbon Speed did not influence this review in any way.
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